Actions

Bengals struggled in the first half of the season, but they're still very much in the mix

AFC North title could come down to season finale
Bengals struggled in the first half of the season, but they're still very much in the mix
Posted at 6:00 AM, Nov 04, 2018

CINCINNATI -- The first half of the Bengals' season wasn't pretty, but their 5-3 record is looking awfully good right now.

Despite a slew of injuries, a struggling defense and an inconsistent offense, Cincinnati is right in the mix for the lead in the AFC North, just percentage points behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-2-1).

The Bengals will use the bye this week to rest, recover and refresh, hopefully get some players back from injury and perhaps figure out why some of the same destructive issues keep re-occurring.

The break couldn't have come soon enough, especially with some tough games left to play. Cincinnati begins the second half of the season Nov. 11 at home against Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.

In the meantime, here is a look at what went right and wrong in the first half and what lies ahead for the remainder of the season:

What went wrong?

Three weeks ago, Cincinnati was 4-1 with a lone loss to Carolina and almost ended up at .500 going into the bye but pulled out a win over the Tampa Bay Bucs last week on a last-second field goal. The Bengals lost to Pittsburgh on a 31-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left, then fell 45-10 to the Kansas City Chiefs in primetime.

The defense has been the biggest disappointment all along, struggling to get off the field on third downs, giving up the most yards in the NFL (447.8 per game) and allowing the fourth most points in the league (29.6 per game). The Bengals have the worst third-down defense in the league, allowing opponents to convert 56 percent of those plays.

The offense's getting off the field too quickly in the second half could be partly to blame; the Bengals' defense already has been worn down by injuries. Cincinnati, which has lost four tight ends, seems to come out of halftime slowly and has scored only 20 of its points in the third quarter.

What went right?

Despite the second-half lulls, the Bengals' offense ranks 10th in points scored (27.6) and Cincinnati has scored touchdowns on 20 of 26 trips to the red zone, good for an NFL-leading 76.9 percent success rate. Quarterback Andy Dalton is having arguably the best season of his career, completing 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,102 yards and 17 touchdowns (tied for third most in the league) with eight interceptions. Where he's been the best, though, is in leading the team down the field for game-winning drives, as he did in Week 4 against Atlanta and Sunday against Tampa Bay. The Bengals have scored points on the last meaningful drive of six games this season.

The defense has helped bail out the offense at times with turnovers, scoring three defensive touchdowns already, and punter Kevin Huber has been outstanding in helping pin opponents inside their own 20-yard line.

The biggest surprises

Pleasant: The offensive line has been much improved, despite some struggles on the right side early on. Cincinnati has allowed just 16 sacks (on pace for 32) after giving up 40 total sacks last year, and the group has shown progress throughout the first half of the season to give Dalton more time to work. Trey Hopkins has stepped in for injured center Billy Price and been solid in his first NFL games at the position, and offseason acquisition Cordy Glenn has been about as good of an upgrade as the Bengals could have hoped for at left tackle. Bobby Hart and Alex Redmond have been the weak point, but Redmond didn't allow a pressure against Tampa Bay after allowing more pressures than any other guard through the first seven games. It will be interesting to see if Hopkins moves back to the right guard spot he manned last year when Price returns.

Not so pleasant: Vontaze Burfict came back from a three-game suspension to open the season and has been mostly a non-factor. He had more missed tackles than tackles made in the worst loss of the season at Kansas City and missed last week's game with a hip injury. And William Jackson hasn't had the season people were expecting from him after a strong showing last year.

Standout individuals

A.J. Green, wide receiver: Still Dalton's most trusted receiver, Green is tied for the most red-zone targets (14) in the NFL this season, and his six touchdown receptions are tied for third most among wide receivers. He has converted third- or fourth-down targets at a rate of 52.9 percent and has 687 yards on 45 catches overall.

Tyler Boyd, wide receiver: Boyd is enjoying a breakout third year, leading the team with 50 receptions for 620 yards and five touchdowns. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he currently has an overall grade of 85.2, which ranks 10th among qualifying receivers, and when targeted, Boyd has generated a passer rating of 136.3, good for the best mark among active receivers with at least 40 targets.

Carlos Dunlap, defensive end: Dunlap leads the team with seven sacks, which puts him on pace for his best career total, and he's been the most consistent player on the Bengals defense when it comes to disrupting opposing offenses. He has five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and he's played a key role in two defensive touchdowns this season. Of course, it helps Dunlap that teams are so concerned about Geno Atkins inside. Atkins has been as dominant as ever, though not as noticeable the last few games.

Jessie Bates, free safety: Bates became the first rookie starter on defense to open the season since Rey Maualuga in 2009, and he hasn't disappointed as George Iloka's replacement. He leads the team with 60 combined tackles and is tied for the lead with three interceptions, including one that he ran back for a touchdown against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Looking ahead

Cincinnati should be getting some of its players back from injury after the bye, including Price (foot) and possibly wide receiver John Ross (groin) and/or running back Giovani Bernard (knee). Green was wearing a boot on his foot Tuesday but that could be precautionary, and at some point linebacker Nick Vigil (knee) and nickel cornerback Darqueze Dennard (shoulder) should be back. Tight end Tyler Kroft (foot) also hopes to return.

The schedule still has plenty of challenges but also winnable games. New Orleans will be a tough opponent, but at least it's a home game, and then the Bengals head to Baltimore, which boasts the league's best defense right now. Two games against unpredictable Cleveland remain, and games against Oakland (1-6) and Denver (3-5) at home should be favorable matchups. Perhaps most concerning, however, are two late games at the L.A. Chargers, who have won four straight and sit at 5-2, and at Pittsburgh for the finale.

The division could come down to that game against the Steelers, who have a tough schedule the second half of the season.